By day, the waterways between the towers are thick with city traffic. By night, glittering under the lights, they are given over to the river otters, weasels, racoons and harbour seals. Whale pods pass through. At low tide, the waters withdraw, leaving the streets slick with flotsam and every block ringed with green.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 foresees a world some 120 years from now in which the great coastal cities have been taken by the sea. Great chunks of Antarctica and Greenland have broken away, causing ocean levels to rise by more than 50 feet. Shanghai, London, The Hague, Miami, Rio, Alexandria, Venice and Mumbai, among many others, have been partially or wholly lost. All of lower Manhattan is under the Atlantic, and much of what remains of the oldest part of the city has become the nebulous ‘intertidal’, a region reaching north from 34th Street to Central Park, dry only at low tide.
The great metropolis has been brutally disfigured. Thousands of lives have been lost, many more disrupted, and cultural treasures washed away forever. As scientists issue ever more urgent warnings about the extent of ice shelf erosion Robinson’s novel reads less like a work of apocalyptic fiction than a straightforward description of the world to come, perhaps the most forensic we have.
And yet, in the end, it is a story of hope. Robinson’s New York has been devastated, but it is still New York. A complex civilisation survives here, and even thrives, after the flood. The submerged city – the ‘SuperVenice’ – has acquired a sublime strangeness, a mesh of crowded, waterways, skywalks, floating villages, platforms and moorings in which vibrant new communities have worked out eclectic new modes of life.
Twenty-second century Lower Manhattan has become ‘a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real.’1 The challenge of adapting to life in the intertidal has inspired ‘a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture’.2
An opportunity for disaster capitalism looms as the predatory financial sector uptown tries to forcibly acquire the area to make way for gentrification. But it is too late: the freewheeling new communities have caught the city’s imagination, and they, rather than the ways of the old elites, set the template for New York’s future.